By: Meliné Karakashian / Source: Armenian Weekly / The Dawn News / May 23, 2017
To his students in the Aintab orphanage, Sarkis Balabanian (Balaban Hoja) (1882-1963) was not simply a mathematics teacher, but a role model who risked his life to save them from Turkish attacks.
I honor Balaban Hoja for having saved these orphans in Aintab. My father was among them.
Balaban Hoja’s heroism and leadership left a deep impression on my father, whose description of events always led me to visualize them vividly, as if watching a film.
I can still hear his description of Balaban Hoja’s hidden gun, and his firm reassurance to the orphans not to be afraid.
In his memoirs, my father wrote:
“…the American organization called Near East Relief opened an orphanage in Aintab. Hundreds of orphans like us would assemble in front of the building; every day, a certain number of them were selected, taken inside, registered, given bath, and dressed. Finally, one day, they took in my younger brother Boghos. When they asked him, ‘Do you have brothers and sisters?’ he gave our names. Thus, Hnazant and I also became charges at the orphanage. They placed Boghos and me in the boys’ division, Hnazant in the girls’. They gave us special uniforms, which had numbers on the shirtsleeves. Boghos had 101 and I had 102. We were very proud of those numbers, which we wore like military insignia.
“Since I could read a little bit, they put me in a higher grade, while they put Boghos in kindergarten. We had regular classes every day, including music and gym.
This continued until the beginning of 1920 when the French, who had replaced the British in Aintab, started to pull out. The Turks were happy, of course, but the Armenians were fearful. The Armenian organizations began maintaining vigil at the orphanage in order to prevent the Turks from inciting massacres anew. Every night, we used to see armed Armenian young men circling the building and ensuring our safety.
“One morning in April 1920, we were in math class. Our teacher, Balaban hoja, blind in one eye, was very strict. Suddenly hearing gunfire, he ran out of the classroom, then came in and, to our surprise, he took a ten-millimeter gun out of his pocket.
“‘Boys, don’t be afraid,’ he ordered, and went down to the courtyard. He yelled from there, ‘Silah bashena,’ which in Turkish, means ‘call to arms.’
“The fighting started between the Armenians and the Turks.
“There had already been tension between the two groups. There were orphans who had been brought from Aleppo and settled in the Turkish quarters. The Armenian governing body brought them to our orphanage for their safety. The French army had camped behind the American College in the Armenian district, but did not get involved in the fighting. The Turkish attacks continued practically until Autumn of that year. Immediately opposite the orphanage in the Turkish quarter was a mosque from which the Turks constantly fired upon us. Fortunately, behind our orphanage building, there was a large cave where we used to go and take refuge in times of danger. The older boys had opened a passageway from the cave to the orphanage, so we could safely reach our bedrooms. Sandbags protected the bedroom windows.”1
Sarkis Balabanian was born in Aintab on May 15, 1882, in a quarter of the city where half the residents were Armenian. He had five sisters and four brothers who died young. At age four, young Sarkis lost his right eye in an accident. His mother pledged to let his hair grow until he was 10, and to then cut his hair at Saint Kevork Church, trusting his fate to a saint. But neighborhood children made fun of him, and at age seven Sarkis entered a barber’s shop and had his hair cut; his mother was unhappy. At age nine, he lost his father and had to leave the Evangelical School where he was enrolled to start working, to help support his family. He sold cigarettes. Turkish lads did not leave Armenian boys alone, though, and he had to learn the street culture well—attacking the enemy before being attacked.
In his memoirs,2 written in 1960 and published after his death, Sarkis Balabanian described several instances of helping others. In summer 1916, Evangelical and Catholic Armenians were deported from Turkey; the Apostolics had already been sent into the depths of the deserts. He was asked to work at the American orphanage, where more than 150 Armenian orphans were being cared for. He purchased groceries for the orphanage, but was also a teacher and a father to the orphaned children.
On a cold day in February 1916, while shopping for the orphanage, he met a woman in the bakery who was crying for a little boy being forced to change his religion:
“For me, this widow’s request was not a surprise since many, like her, had asked for his help to solve difficult situations such as kidnapping, imprisonment, forced Islamization.”3
The widow, from Sivas, had been able to escape the deportations and secure a job at the house of a wealthy Chechen in Aintab, thus saving her life. Yet, she had come not for herself, but for an Armenian child. In tears, she said her boss had purchased this child from Aintab’s Tel Bashar village a week ago and intended to circumcise the boy and convert him to Islam. The child had resisted, and her boss had punished him the old way, keeping him hungry for two days. Nevertheless, the child continued his stubborn resistance. The widow begged Balabanian to save the boy.
“The widow came out of the bakery. I followed her to learn the location of the little hero. We walked long until we reached Kurd Tepe, on the northern slope of which was the house. Before we separated, we agreed on a way to kidnap the boy.
“Late on that snowy night, when everyone [was] indoors, I, on a donkey hurried toward the Chechen’s criminal home, where an Armenian boy looked out for me.
“I saw the boy from a distance. As per our agreement, he was outside the door. The poor child, warmed his frozen hands with his breath. I prodded the donkey to move fast. I reached the boy. Carefully, I checked around me; there was no one in sight. Only the wind whistled and sprinkled snow on my face.
“Without losing time, I approached the little boy and in Armenian I said, I had come after him to save him. The boy was happy. I put him in the pocket of the saddle and whipped my donkey. And when I felt safe that we were not [being] followed, the boy answered me that his name was Khntir [Problem], his mother’s, Haiganoush, father’s Ardashes, and that he is from Kharpert.
“We reached the college door, frozen from the cold. I took the child out of the pocket and entered the room of the doorman. He was barely five. He had black eyes, long eyelashes, red cheeks. The face of a pretty Armenian. Holding him, I went to the orphanage caretaker’s room, Mrs. Ovsanna Kupelian, where I told her the situation.”4
The orphanage caretaker refused to accept the child and advised Balabanian to care for his family instead, since he could be punished for this act. Instead of repeating his request to, Balabanian held the child up and went to Mr. Merryl, the director.
This fine man grabbed the child and invited Balabanian to take a seat. When Balabanian told the boy’s story, he saw tears in Mr. Merryl’s eyes. Soon after, Mrs. Meryl asked her husband if he did not wish to adopt an angel like the little boy; he agreed and Mrs. Merryl handed the child over to the servant to be washed and fed.
Balabanian and the Merryls then prayed to God, asking Him to put an end to the hardships of this people.
Balabanian in his memoirs diverts from the story here to tell how, eight months later, he met a young woman, after being deported. There, in a large factory, as a supervisor of refugees, he noticed a young woman in a corner of the yard who cried and prayed every day. One day, he approached her and asked why she was crying. She said:
“Brother, my pain has no limit. Before I left Kharpert, my husband was taken away, then I was deported with two children. My infant died on the road. The other, a boy, was grabbed from me near Aintab’s Tlbashar village and to date I hear his shouts, ‘Mama, mama, they are taking me…save me mama,’ she said and cried again.”5
Her words broke Balabanian’s heart. When the young woman calmed down and looked at him, Balabanian thought he had seen her eyes somewhere before. He asked what her boy’s name was. She replied, “Khntir, he was my older son. I had begged God to grant me a son and promised to raise him religiously, a good Christian.” Balabanian then asked if her son’s eyes resembled hers. She replied yes, and cried again. He asked her name; when he heard Haiganoush and that her late husband’s name was Ardashes, he was sure that Khntir was her son. He promised to help her, and reassured her that Khntir was alive and in good hands. Balabanian then wrote to Mrs. Merryl with the story. The fine woman, Mrs. Merryl, sent Khntir to Aleppo to be reunited with his mother.
In 1933, while a teacher at the Oosoomnasirats School in Aleppo, Balabanian was busy with graduation ceremonies when a young man approached him, took off his hat, and hugged him, saying, “Khoja, did you forget Khntir?” As Balabanian was accustomed to solving problems in math class, he asked with amazement what problem (“khntir”) the boy was referring to. Khntir then explained who he was. Balabanian remembered and hugged him.
Khntir had arrived from America, looking for an Armenian bride. They found him an Armenian girl from Kharpert, held the wedding, and set them off to America.
“Khntir revenged the Turks, by forming an Armenian family,” Balabanian wrote.
Balabanian’s memoirs are full of similar moving stories of saving lives.
He volunteered in the British Army and was sent to Aintab, wearing a Turkish soldier’s uniform, with a firearm and 150 rounds of ammunition, presenting himself as a Turk along the way. Balabanian described the events at the orphanage on April 1, which my father also referred to in his memoirs:
“It was April the first. After prayer, we entered class. Suddenly the sound of shellings disturbed our peace. I sent the students immediately to the basement and since I was that day’s guard, ran to hold my position. The groups of youth were in their positions. Here, they fire from the opposite building on the orphanage, leaving women and children panicky in the yard. And the people, under our guard, jam in the buildings of the Americans.”6
Balabanian and the youth held their positions waiting for the sign to counter-attack. The sign came and then silence. The Turkish side, defeated, counts its victims.
In the following days, the city looked like a little fort with the Armenians—7 to 70 years old, men and women—fulfilling their responsibilities.
“For fifteen days, my eyes have not seen sleep. I have not taken off my shoes, have not seen my family and children. The principal of the orphanage, feeling sorry for me, demanded that I take breaks to rest.
“Mr. Boyd, the American principal of the orphanage and director of the red cross, who for a while opposed my activities of making secret military enforcements in the orphanage, now, seeing my and my brave people’s heroic struggle, came and asked for forgiveness, for having hurt me unjustly.
“After that we became friends. You can imagine that he even gave me a ‘Browning.’
“On the fifth day of the fighting, the Turks suggested a cease-fire. We accepted. Taking advantage, we placed bags full of sand against the upper windows of the orphanage.”
An Armenian messenger, who had never held arms, on seeing three Turkish watchers had fired on them, breaking the ceasefire at a time when a delegation was trying to draw up the details.
As a result, an organized Turkish army unit then approached the orphanage. The British directors forbid the Armenians from using arms. The hospital, orphanage, and the Armenian quarters risked turning into a blood bath.
“Therefore, taking the whole responsibility in my hands, I ordered the boys to fire. The Turkish army approaching nonchalantly, became alarmed by our unexpected and violent attacks. The Turks had numerous victims. Those who survived, fled. I do not know the number of their victims, I only know that at the end of the fight, they did not dare approach our positions.
“And I, while encouraging my fighters, suddenly, heard a loud voice that called me. I turned around. It was Dr. Shephard, who had forbidden me to fire, who cried:
– Hoja, hoja, do you think you can stop?
– Doctor, why shall I stop; I shall fire and fire again…
“Now, it was Dr. Shephard who said,
– Bravo, Hoja, bravo, fire, those Turks are liars. The windows of my bedroom were broken from their firings. From here on, I am with you, against them; to death, I will fight by your side.”
Balabanian proceeds to describe other courageous deeds that marked his lifetime of dedication to the Armenian people.
May Balaban Hoja, mathematics teacher, be kindly remembered for having saved Armenian orphans during and after the Armenian Genocide.
1 Jamgotchian, H. My Legacy, Yerevan: Dall (A. Jamgochian, Tr.), 2004.
2 Balabanian, S. Gyankis Dak oo Bagh Orereh [The Hot and Cold Days of my Life] (in Armenian), Aleppo:Shark (T. Toranian, Ed.), 1983.
Note from the author: I thank my friends, Cesar Chekijian (for introducing me to the story of Balaban Hoja after reading my father’s memoirs, and for sharing references with me) and Haroutune Terjanian (for finding a student of Sarkis Balabanian’s, who shared his memoirs).
Burjlian. (1975). Memories of Balaban Khoja. In, Nor Aintab, Vol. XVI, No. 3, pp. 43-44.
Toranian, T. (1994). Sarkis Balabanian (1882-1963). Badmootyoon Antabi Hayots [History of Armenian Aintab], Volume III, E. Babayan (Ed.), pp 945-952.